From Carslaw to Canberra

Examining the patterns of sexual assault in public service, fuelled by universities.

TW: Sexual Assault

Over the past few weeks, and in the wake of International Women’s Day, Australia has witnessed inconsistencies in how we treat women and how we approach conversations about sexual assault.

We have seen several ironies unfolding over the past few weeks. Grace Tame, an advocate for survivors of sexual assault, was announced our 2021 Australian of the Year. She founded the #LetHerSpeak campaign, calling for survivors of sexual assault to have a voice — a vessel of dignity among the demeaning legal processes. Weeks later, Former Liberal Staffer Brittany Higgins came forward with an allegation of rape in Parliament House; a place meant to represent and radiate probity, dignity, and governing.

We witnessed a feat of linguistics in Scott Morrison’s apology to Brittany Higgins, which omitted any mention of the alleged perpetrator’s name. The speel contained tactical uses of passive language, including “there should not be an environment where a woman can find herself in such a vulnerable situation.”  This seems to subtly avoid the issue at hand. There should not be any environment where predators can assault or attack their colleagues.

Scott Morrison uttered the now infamous words, “You have to think about this as a father…What would you want to happen if it were our girls?” —An insular association that forged an abrasive start to Brittany Higgins’ apology. The Prime Minister has foundationally orientated the sexual assault narrative around a male perspective, contributing to the systems that render many survivors voiceless. 

We’ve witnessed the mishandling of this attack, rhetoric of insularity, and a lack of acknowledgement that every survivor’s story should warrant empathy. 

This sequence of events has unleashed a sense of turbulence in the realm of sexual assault discourse. It has unravelled the ironies of sexual assault victims feeling muzzled in Parliament House, while Scott Morrison shakes Grace Tame’s hand as Australian of The Year. These inconsistencies were baffling for us all to watch. It has reignited conversations that are often pushed aside or subdued.

Seeing this behaviour by our politicians prompts one to wonder where these patterns begin, and how these malevolent actions can be perpetrated from an early age; set in motion from as early as high school and university.

Unfortunately, the University of Sydney is no stranger to a sexual assault scandal. We have had: Facebook groups harbouring misogynistic “anti-consent” content; women subject to assault having to endure convoluted complaint processes, only for the perpetrator to be met with meagre consequences; “internal Investigations” and college self-governance which dispense little accountability.

USyd groups such as the Women’s Collective (WoCo) and End Rape on Campus (EROC) have organised activism against sexual assault on campus, and the enduring culture that allows for sexual assault to occur. 

In 2016, members of the Women’s Collective penned an open letter to then-Vice Chancellor Michael Spence, asking for issues regarding consent and handling sexual assault cases to be addressed and improved. Many of these demands have still not been met. 

In 2018, End Rape on Campus published The Red Zone report, an investigation into sexual assault and hazing rituals at the university. The report revealed a living culture of these occurrences on USyd college campuses —and administration turning a “blind eye” to reported incidences.

Today, it is clear that these areas are still an issue.

A viral petition has circulated Sydney demanding better consent education in our schools. The creator of the petition, Chanel Contos, was inundated with testimonies from young women who had experienced rape or sexual assault during their high school years, perpetrated by boys from other Sydney schools. Some testimonies recall sexual assault from occurring as young as 13.

Links can be made between the testimonies in the consent petition, the absence of accountability, and our federal politicians’ predatory behaviour. We can see here a progression. Predatory behaviours that aren’t extinguished at a high school level can extend onto university campuses. These behaviours can build upon each other in insular environments, where predators justify each other’s actions. They carry on into the workforce, even into Parliament House.

The crusade against sexual assault must begin with an attitude shift. The pervasiveness of rape culture reveals a compromised set of ideas towards women —and bolsters narratives that blame the victim for others’ violence. 

These attitudes must be phased out at every aspect of life —through schooling, university, and the workplace. It must be actively shunned. Our schools, universities, and workplaces must cultivate an environment where survivors can feel as though they can speak out, and be heard —regardless if they’re someone’s daughter or not.

Without respect for consent, there is no respect for one’s agency.